In one of the best descriptions of holding space, Parker Palmer said:
“The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed – to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.”
The question is, how do we do that?
What is holding space?
I describe holding space as an art, a craft and a skill. This is my attempt to capture the unique artistry of an individual meeting themselves or another in those moments of sweetness and sourness, in grief and gratitude or in joy and despair. It is my attempt to articulate that companioning oneself or others flows from crafting connection and trust. It is also my attempt to acknowledge that with willingness, practice and reflection we can learn the skills of a space holder such as deep and present listening.
Holding space for myself is a daily devotional practice. I weave it into my morning ritual, whilst I’m journaling, listening to River tell me his stories, walking in the woods and paddling in the river. I take my time to become fully present with myself and my surroundings before I write, sit with a client, start an interview or hold a circle. It is not a one-off act, but an ongoing tuning in, noticing and reflecting.
Holding space can be a complex process. It evolves as we practice it, and although the path may be unique to each person and each situation, in my experience there are repeating patterns of behaviour that show up for us as Space Holders.
I have loved exploring “archetypes” and seeking to understand those that are active in my life and work. In doing so I draw on Carl Jung’s definition of archetypes as images and themes that derive from the collective unconscious, together with the writing of Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Sharon Blackie, Danielle Dulsky and Toko-pa Turner.*
In Belonging, Toko-pa Turner says
“In the act of connecting to archetypes we feel the spark of vitality, a hint of life, a tiny becoming. We begin to remember who we were before we fell under the enchantment. We trace back to our root purpose, when we were engaged and alive, when we were our best selves.”
Through my own exploration with archetypes and recognising these repeating patterns for Space Holders, I created a framework to help us deepen into our understanding of who we are as a Space Holder and to meet “our best selves” in this role.
This framework consists of 7-Space Holder Archetypes based on my experience of holding circles, the behaviours that I’ve witnessed in Circle and what Circle Holders have shared with me. I share this with the invitation to use this framework to support yourself and your work. These aren’t written in stone; they are breathable and changeable. Please use your discernment to adapt them to suit your needs rather than as labels. They are a tool in cultivating self-awareness and recognising patterns of behaviour in others.
Holding Space Archetypes
I offer these 7-archetypes with a Guardian and Shadow form. When we are responding from the Guardian form we are acting from our root purpose, from our best selves. Whereas when we are reacting from the Shadow form, we are coming from a part of ourselves that has been wounded or rejected. If we are aware of our behaviours we can identify whether we are acting from the healed, whole part of us or from the shadow aspect. It is important to remind ourselves that this shadow aspect is not “bad”, it is a part of us that is calling for loving attention and care.
The 7-archetypes in both forms are:
- Maiden / Indulger
- Mother / Fixer
- Wild Woman / Avoider
- Medicine Woman / Wounded Healer
- Muse / Validator
- Wise Woman / Adviser
- Priestess / Saviour
You may find these descriptors self-evident and I hope they are helpful. In PRESENCE, my holding space immersion we explore these in detail through a guided process to identify which are currently active within you.
As we deepen our understanding of the Guardian form we can embody those qualities which support us to hold safer, compassionate and courageous spaces.
Those qualities include:
- Maiden – supports us to demonstrate vulnerability and not be afraid for ourselves or others
- Mother – has the capacity to see people’s magnificence
- Wild Woman – can hold the tension of paradox
- Medicine Woman – sees people as whole and guides them within for answers
- Muse – is compassionate without offering platitudes
- Wise Woman – can share from her lived experience and inner wisdom
- Priestess – facilitates a process where transformation can occur
As we recognise the Shadow form at play, we can meet it with tenderness and explore further.
These traits may show themselves as:
- Indulger – takes pleasure in the other person’s struggle or pain
- Fixer – wants to fix “the problem”
- Avoider – renders the other person’s experience void by dismissing, distracting or ignoring
- Wounded Healer – sees the other person as broken or deficient in some way and that they can heal them
- Validator – offer opinion or judgments in agreement
- Adviser – gives unsolicited advice
- Saviour – seeks to rescue
As I’ve shared, this is a framework. It is intended to be helpful. This isn’t about aspiring to be a perfect Space Holder.
In my experience, each of us will have a natural tendency towards one (or more) Shadow and Guardian aspect. I invite you to see it as a spectrum and where you are on that spectrum may change in different circumstances.
Having an awareness of these archetypes can helps us to understand where we can deepen our capacity to hold space for ourselves and others and also to recognise these in other people which can be useful when you’re collaborating with someone or facilitating groups!
When you do recognise a shadow aspect has played out, ask yourself:
- Did I get a sense of value or worthiness from fixing / healing / saving?
- Did I make assumptions based on relatively small amounts of information and felt that I had the right to share my opinion / advice?
- Why did I think I knew best? (when holding space for someone else)
- Was I attached to a certain outcome? What was that and why?
Often, the urge to fix, heal or save, is a reflection of our own fears, challenges, pain and unhealed trauma. It’s important to seek the appropriate professional support and guidance where we recognise this.
At the heart of my approach to holding space, is the belief that how we hold space for ourselves is reflected in how we hold space for others. If we can meet ourselves with presence, tenderness, compassion, courage, willingness, curiosity and love then we have a far deeper capacity to hold safer spaces for others.
People don’t need to be fixed or saved or rescued.
They need to know their sovereignty and how to access their own power.